GLOBEFISH - Information and Analysis on World Fish Trade

The Changing Face of Seafood Marketing in the Arab Gulf States


By Izzat H. Feidi, Fisheries Development Consultant

Seafood in the Arab Gulf States 

The western coastline bordering the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman is around 1,545 km long and up to a maximum width of 370 km. Seven Arab States border both Gulfs: from the north Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman to the south. The eastern side of the Gulf is bordered by the Islamic Republic of Iran. In general there is a very strong growing demand for additional supplies of seafood products which as in several countries in the region have given an impetus to increase supplies to the local fish markets. This trend is expanding not only in the Arab Gulfs States but worldwide. All indications show that this development in increased demand for seafood commodities has no chances to be reversed not only in the Arab Gulf States but worldwide and it is bound to increase in the years to come.

Sources of Seafood 

According to the latest published FAO Fisheries Statistics the 2017 total fish landings of all fishery species from capture and aquaculture production reached by all seven countries of the region 636,781 tonnes of which 546,280 tonnes (85.8%) came from marine and fresh water capture fisheries and 90,501 tonnes (14.2%) from aquaculture. The bulk of the total production from marine capture landings came from Oman and a distant second from Saudi Arabia followed by the U.A.E. Freshwater capture landings and from aquaculture came from Saudi Arabia and Iraq. 

The main sources of seafood for marketing in the Gulf States are as follows:    

1Local capture fisheries: Both Gulfs contain many commercially valuable seafood species, notable among which are shrimp and several fin fish species such as grouper, silver pomfret, emperors, breams, etc. Several fish species are reported to be overfished, e.g. shrimp in some areas and some demersal species particularly grouper. Many of the fish resources form straddling stocks, where management by two or more countries needs to be agreed upon. The nature of the Gulfs bottom restricts the type of fishing that is possible; corals and other rock outcrops limit the areas in which trawling is possible and require the use of stationary gear such as traps, hook and line and gill nets. In some areas, the use of artificial reefs has become common with unknown effects upon the local marine ecology. Some of the most productive waters in the world occur in the Gulf of Oman which connects to the northwestern Arabian Sea. This information is based on several high level research activities that took place some years ago. In other words expansion of seafood landings to the local markets from local capture fisheries is rather limited except for Oman.

2Local aquaculture: These days aquaculture is one of the fastest growing food production systems in the world. The Arab Gulfs States suffer from shortage of fresh water resources and scarce rainfall thus preventing the engagement to large scale fresh water aquaculture projects. Fresh water aquaculture has only recently shown real development in Iraq due to the availability of inland fresh water bodies in addition to the two rivers: the Tigris and the Euphrates. Aquaculture in Iraq has a long tradition although at a moderate scale of production. Also in Saudi Arabia aquaculture has taken good strides in recent years where some fresh water resources are available as well as the farming of some species that are tolerant to brackish water such as Tilapia spp.

With the support of the government and technical support from FAO the Fish Farming Center north of Jeddah was established to disseminate aquaculture technical knowledge as well as distribution of seeds to private citizens to establish fish farms across the country where a good but limited fresh or brackish water resource is available. However, in the last few years the private sector established mega marine water shrimp farming projects mainly along the eastern shore of the Red Sea. Other states in the region are practicing in some aquaculture projects and as support each state has established fish research and development centers. Therefore, in the longer run aquaculture would be a more reliable source to increase seafood supplies to the local markets although it would mainly be to the rearing of some fin-fish species, the majority of which would be locally known indigenous species and possibly introduced some imported and acclimatized species such as Barramundi (Asian Sea bass) and Cobia as well as shrimps. Few years ago a Sturgeon farm with German state-of –the –art technology was established in Abu Dhabi to produce caviar for the local and export markets. But the project later failed. Recently Fish Farm headquartered in Dubai established in Jabal Ali a salmon rearing farm which is operating successfully. Another potential salmon farm is being considered for Neom, the Saudi futuristic city north-west of the Arabian Peninsula. 

As an example of the growing importance of aquaculture in the Gulfs States, the Sultanate of Oman has identified aquaculture as being a key pillar to diversify its national economy beyond the hydrocarbon sector. Oman’s combination of natural resources, world-class infrastructure, attractive financial incentives and committed government authorities make Oman uniquely well-positioned to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the aquaculture sector. For this purpose, in 2010 Oman produced an “Atlas of Suitable Aquaculture Projects in the Sultanate of Oman”. Similarly Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. also produced information on suitable aquaculture sites with various incentives to increase investments in aquaculture projects. 

3Imports and Exports: Fish and fishery products are currently one of the most heavily traded food commodities worldwide. Most of the traded fish products cross international borders between harvest and consumption. Most of the locally landed species are locally consumed fresh which are boosted moderately by production from aquaculture. But due to the limitation on local capture fisheries and the level aquaculture production the main source to increase supplies to meet the growing demand is through importation from various sources either from countries in the region such as Egypt, Yemen and Oman as well as from Europe and also from south-east Asian countries.  

Although most of the Gulf States enjoy a good level of local fish production which satisfies a large portion of the relatively small local population, but in the past two decades or so a huge influx of foreign labor force came into most of these states. Their presence created the need for more supplies of fish and fishery products which included species and seafood products as well as new seafood preparations and cooking styles that are not familiar in the Gulfs States. Some of these imports include high priced fish and fishery products to cater for the elite clientele in high class restaurants and luxury hotels. In order to satisfy the demand of the foreign residents, imports of fish and fishery products in all forms and shapes began to enter the seafood market in most States. The major importers are Saudi Arabia and U.A.E. Most of the imports are from south-east Asia while a large portion of imports is from intra-regional trade. For example considerable quantities come from fish-rich Oman to Dubai market as well as to Saudi Arabia by land where some of these quantities are re-exported to neighboring countries or air–lifted to regional and European markets. Furthermore, some fish processing plants especially in Dubai import raw material mainly shrimps from India and Pakistan to convert them into value-added products for sale in the Gulfs markets and for export.

Marketing Seafood in the Gulfs States 

1. Background: The fisheries sector in most of the countries of the Gulfs represents the second most important natural resources after oil. Fishing and marketing of seafood products is a long tradition in the region and therefore the various communities living along the coastal areas and on the shorelines of inland water bodies are very much attached to the sector. Few years back fish marketing took place in traditional open-air markets set up around landing sites where very moderate marketing facilities were available. However, with the advent of increased urbanization and the development of mega cities in most of the region and the formation of huge foreign communities of various levels of workers from around the world has created increased demand for fish and fishery products which the local resources from capture and aquaculture production could not satisfy.

Furthermore, the overfishing practices have reduced the availability of catches from local resources to a considerable extent. This phenomenon has resulted in resorting to imports from various parts of the world of various species and product forms to cater for the tastes of nationals and foreign residents as well as species and fishery products that are demanded by the expatriate labor force in most of the Gulfs States. In addition to the shortages from local resources the opening up of new employment opportunities in other sectors of the industry has reduced the numbers of local traditional fishermen. The younger generations are shying away from the trade of their fathers. Most of the fishermen these days are from the foreign labor force although ownership of boats and gear are still in the hands of nationals. Some States have lately enacted some laws to restrict fishing to nationals.

2. Consumer preferences: Traditionally seafood consumers in the States consume fish species that are caught in the waters bordering their shores or from inland waters such as the case in Iraq. The average per capita consumption varies with the level of production in each State. It is mainly high in the large producing States such as Oman. This disparity reflects the high level of fish production and low population rates. The universal preference throughout the States is for fresh fish. However, in recent years, whole individually chilled and frozen fish has become widely accepted in most states. Labeling of the whole frozen fish includes information on recommended dates for consumption. Cured fish (mostly dried is also popular, but mainly in remote areas). The commercially preferred locally produced seafood species traded include demersal species such as grouper, snapper, silver pomfret, emperor, breams, mullet and some pelagic species such as tunas, mackerels, trevally and crustacean species such as shrimps and crabs.

Outlets for Marketing Seafood  

1. Public fish markets: The dynamic development in the various sectors of the economy in the countries of the region including fishing and marketing of fish and fishery products has created the need to completely overhaul and up-grade the traditional fish markets by constructing modern fish retail markets in suitable locations supplied with the various necessary amenities such as fish selling stalls, fresh running water, electricity, cooling refrigeration facilities, ice, auction section, etc.   These structures now exist in most of the main cities like Muscat, Kuwait, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Jeddah, Doha and Bahrain which have built ultra-modern markets for the sale of fresh fish and other seafood products produced locally or imported.

2. Supermarkets:  In addition to the government established fish markets for the general public, in all the cities ultra-modern supermarket chains of international standards such as Carrefour and Spinneys are sprouting. Most supermarkets has well equipped section for selling fish and fish products and offering services for cleaning and dressing of fishery products according to consumers’ demands. Furthermore, on display customers will find various preparations of surimi and sashimi products which are becoming popular with nationals as well as with foreign residents.

3. Fisheries companies: In addition to the above fundamental changes in the local fisheries sector, the emergence in the last few years of several fishing companies in the region has further developed the sector. Although most of the fisheries sector is in the small-scale fisheries operated by local fishermen with traditional but mechanized boats, new large scale-fishing vessels are now operated by established local companies to fish off-shore as well as in deep sea waters. Some of these companies such as United Fisheries of Kuwait, Saudi Fisheries Company, and Oman Fisheries Co. are established to operate in marine capture fisheries using modern fishing vessels. Their fish is landed in home ports where it is sold in their own well equipped fish shops to consumers in fresh or frozen form or as value-added products in consumer packages. Other fisheries companies of international standards operate mariculture projects especially along the eastern shores of the Red Sea such as the National Aquaculture Group (former National Prawn Company) is one of the largest aquaculture operations in the world. It is located along the coast of the Red Sea in Al Leith, Saudi Arabia.

Another one is Al-Fulk National Co. Ltd. of Saudi Arabia which is dedicated to the farming of shrimps mainly for export to international markets. Furthermore a recently established company in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia is the Al-Qalzam Sea Global Company which deals among its other activities fisheries and aquaculture and support services. Recently the Ro’ya Company of Saudi Arabia signed with the “Chinese Corporation Guangdong Evergreen Group Company, a contract for the establishment of an aquaculture project to produce 50,000 tonnes of fish and shrimps in a total area of 4,000 hectares in Jazan area. Some of these fish and shrimp producing companies own and operate, beside their huge fish farms, state-of-the-art value and seafood processing plants. Also some aquaculture companies are also established in the region for the purpose of producing fin-fish species for the purpose of boosting local production and for export. 

4. Fish restaurants: The new awareness in the nutritious value of consuming seafood has resulted in the establishment of many seafood restaurants dedicated to the serving of seafood in various forms and cooking styles to cater for the varied and wide-ranging guests. The new types of clientele who frequent these restaurants are usually from the affluent and middle to high class customers either from the local population or who came from many countries from around the world. These are either resident with or without families who come for work or as traveling tourists where tourism in these States is becoming a new industry in spite of the severe weather conditions. The specialized restaurants serving seafood are usually established in prime locations in the major cities and also within the international chains of 5-star hotels. Some of these restaurants are also located in tourist villages and resorts where the elite spend holidays and have become very competitive attraction for seafood lovers. Most of the seafood served is of high value species including noble fin-fishes, lobster, shrimps, salmon (stakes and smoked) oysters, caviar, squid, sea cucumber and abalone and several species of bi-valves. The caterers for these restaurants are either contractors or dealers having supply contracts with the restaurant owners or hotel management.

5. Exhibitions and trade shows: In this age of globalization and free trade, the new face of the fisheries industries in the Gulfs region has escorted the new face in seafood marketing. This development has helped these States to enter into the business of holding annual international seafood exhibitions and trade shows either as fully dedicated events or as major part of an agriculture/fisheries/food shows. Most notable among these is the Middle East Trade event AgraME which has introduced AgraTech as a platform for the display of technological advancements such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) to the regional agriculture/fisheries market and to promote knowledge sharing through the conference programme. AgraME drives the future of sustainable farming to ensure food security in the Middle East and Africa by promoting globally renowned methods to boost domestic production. It is expected to hold its next Exhibition 3-5 March 2020 in Dubai.  Saudi Arabia is also active in holding food related exhibitions and shows. The annual Saudi Agrofood and Saudi Aquaculture are expected to hold their events in Riyadh during the 38th International Agriculture, Aquaculture & Agro-Industry Show during 21-24 October 2019. These events provide an excellent opportunity for participants in sourcing world-wide for supplies and various other related benefits including opportunities for investments in new projects.

6. Trade promotions:  In addition to all the new faces that are shaping fish marketing outlets in the Gulfs States, those involved in the fish trading business are becoming increasingly aware of the value of fish marketing information and promotion. Enlightened private sector importers, exporters, researchers and government officials have in recent years resorted to consult specialized sources that provide world-wide knowledge and information on the fish and seafood markets, new seafood value-added products and innovations, developed fish processing equipment and machinery, current and up-to-date market wholesale and retail fish prices, fish auctions, new research results and fishery projects, aquaculture, etc.

Notable among these sources is the FAO Fish marketing information network GLOBEFISH as well as its main regional centers of INFOSAMAK for the Arab region, INFOFISH for Asia-Pacific region and INFOPECHE for Africa, INFOPESCA for Latin America and Caribbean, EUROFISH for Eastern Europe and INFOYU for China. Also there are several electronic fish marketing information sources on the Internet among these is the Fish Information & Services (FIS) which provide very valuable fish marketing and information services world-wide, also the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA) promotes responsible aquaculture practices through responsible and sustainable aquaculture and last not least Seafood Source which provides access to comprehensive knowledge for information on fisheries industries worldwide.  

Research and Development 

While the private sector has various facilities to promote its trade in fish and fishery products by using all the sources and means that are made available to it, the governments of the Gulfs States which encourage free trade and market policies are also engaged in ensuring the availability of the proper environment for a sound and flourishing fishing industry by enacting laws and regulations to protect and conserve the resources and bring about proper management schemes. For this purpose each of the States has established a fisheries research center where its scientist are conducting various studies for the protection of the resources as well as to find ways and means to boost long-term conservation and sustainable use of resources from capture fisheries and aquaculture.

In addition the States are also members of the FAO established Regional Commission for Fisheries (RECOFI) which conducts joint studies and research activities in relevant fields and promotes collaboration between the States especially as a way of jointly protecting the fisheries of the Gulfs especially the joint stocks as well having a dedicated Aquaculture Committee to help in the development of the sector. Iran is also a member of this regional body. 

Looking into the Future 

It is inconceivable that the new activities in the marketing of seafood in the Gulf States will stop at the level it has reached today. The future will continue to hold new introductions and new projects just as the surprises which are introduced almost daily in other sectors of the economy. Fish production from local sources will continue and possibly with better management of the resources will expand and aquaculture production will increase to boost supplies.

More imports of seafood products will continue to be demanded as new innovations will be created as populations will continue to increase. The private sector as well as the governments will have the responsibility to ensure that the industry is well protected and responsibly flourished.  

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